American cinema’s great what-ifs

Comment se dit “<i>révolution</i>” <i>en anglais</i>?

Comment se dit “révolutionen anglais?

In an American film industry that was literally built on disobeying patent laws, imitation and copycatting are endemic, which means that all successes and failures have butterfly effects with California-condor-sized wingspans.

What would American films look like today if RKO had accepted William Randolph Hearst’s offer to destroy Citizen Kane, or if Alan Ladd Jr. hadn’t talked skittish studio execs out of pulling the plug on Star Wars early in production?

Consider The Godfather: If Paramount overrode Francis Ford Coppola and cast Ernest Borgnine and Robert Redford instead of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, it’s hard to imagine the resulting film becoming a cultural touchstone. If that was the case, the gangster genre would not have been repopularized, Martin Scorsese would be known for his concert documentaries and The Sopranos would never have existed.

What about if François Truffaut had directed Bonnie and Clyde? As outlined in Mark Harris’ excellent Pictures at a Revolution, Robert Benton and David Newman wrote Bonnie and Clyde specifically for Truffaut, and the Jules and Jim auteur flirted with the project for years while trying to get Fahrenheit 451 off the ground.

Perhaps Truffaut’s Bonnie and Clyde would have been the equal of Arthur Penn’s, but it certainly would not have ignited an American filmmaking revolution. Benton and Harris’ intention was to make an American French new wave film, but having actual Americans at the helm gave it the force of a “movement,” and Bonnie and Clyde jump-started the 1970s Hollywood renaissance.

If Truffaut had made Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty’s star would have continued its fade, Bosley Crowther would have kept his job at The New York Times, and the career trajectories of Robert Towne, Faye Dunaway, Pauline Kael, Robert Altman and countless others would have been strikingly different.

For better or worse, here we are.